Thirteen And A Half by Maile Meloy, 2002
The magic trick:
Telling a coming-of-age story without putting the sole focus on the girl who is coming of age
Sometimes you discover a writer’s greatness through a single story – an undeniable burst of genius. Think Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” You can stop there, having read only 20 pages of her oeuvre, and rest assured that Flannery O’Connor is a great writer. With others, it may take a few more hours of reading. Think Maile Meloy.
I read maybe 10 of her stories – all of them very good – and thought, Yeah, she’s really good. But there was something about adding “Thirteen And A Half” to my knowledge base. Suddenly it dawned on me: Meloy is great. She may not have one story that ranks among the all-timers. But dang, if she isn’t consistent. Every story, every time. You know you’re in for something of high quality.
“Thirteen And A Half” recalls Alice Munro (specifically, “Red Dress – 1946”) and previews Meloy’s own “Red From Green,” published a few years later. It’s a coming of age story. But whereas most every coming-of-age story ever written focuses solely on the protagonist who is coming of age, “Thirteen And A Half” does some clever jumping around.
It begins from the mother’s perspective. Midlife is descending on her and she can’t stop the rush of passing time. Already it’s an interesting twist on the coming-of-age adolescence story. Then Meloy does something risky. She pulls the reader completely away from the family home we’ve just been getting to know and puts us in a stolen car 200 miles away in Helena.
Stranger Things fans among us will recall that this storytelling strategy produced Season 2, Episode 7, perhaps the most ill-conceived episode of television ever made. But here it works brilliantly.
Coming-of-age doesn’t seem to be celebratory or embarrassing or even painful; it’s downright dangerous. By taking the spotlight off of Amy, the story shows the consequences of her coming-of-age more than the process itself. You don’t get that from many stories. It’s the stuff of greatness. And that’s quite a trick on Meloy’s part.
On the morning of the eighth-grade dance in June, Gina woke to the sound of running water and the smell of papaya-mango-dewberry steam seeping under the door. She had an acute sense, listening to her daughter in the shower, that this was a fleeting in her life: the papaya-scented girl in the blue eye shadow and body glitter would disappear as quickly as two and six and twelve had gone. Within a year, Amy would want to smell life perfume in tiny cut-glass vials, and Gina would never again wake to this tropical fog.
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